Neither streamlined like the Siamese nor stocky like the Burmese, the Tonkinese strikes a happy medium. The conformation is midway between the extremes of the svelte body type and the cobby body type. The Tonk has a medium-length torso that shows well-developed muscular strength without coarseness. The abdomen is taut, well-muscled, and firm. The legs are fairly slim and are in proportion to the body in length and boning, with the hind legs slightly longer than the front legs. The paws are more oval than round. The tapering tail is in proportion to the length of the body. Tonks are surprisingly heavy for their size. Adult males usually weigh 8 to 12 pounds, and adult females usually weigh 6 to 8 pounds. Overall balance and proportion are more important than size.
The head is a slightly rounded modified wedge, somewhat longer than wide, with high, gently planed cheekbones. A slight, gently curved whisker break follows the lines of the wedge. The blunt muzzle is as long as it is wide. There is a slight nose stop at eye level. A straight line can be drawn from the tip of the nose to the tip of the chin. A gentle contour, with a slight rise from the nose stop to the forehead, can be seen.
The ears are alert, medium in size, and broad at the base with oval tips. They are set as much on the sides of the head as on the top. The hair on the ears is very short and close-lying, and the skin may show through.
The open, almond-shaped eyes are in proportion to the face and are slanted along the cheekbones toward the outer edge of the ear.
The coat is medium-short and is close-lying, fine, soft, and silky with a lustrous sheen. Because the Tonkinese inherited the color and pattern genes from both its parent breeds, the Tonk’s coat comes in three patterns: mink, pointed, and solid (called sepia by some associations, such as TICA). Contrast is the difference between the three patterns: Pointed Tonks have point color with high contrast to the body color; mink Tonks have point color with medium contrast to the body color, and solid Tonks have point color with low contrast to the body color. Solid Tonks are not the same as solid colors of other breeds, however; the body colors are slightly lighter shades of the point colors, with little contrast. The quality of the coat color is very important in this breed; CFA’s breed standard allots a full 25 points out of the possible 100 to the coat color, and another 10 to eye color. In TICA, 30 points is allotted to coat, color, and pattern, which includes 8 points for eyes. Eye color depends upon coat pattern; pointed Tonks have blue eyes, mink Tonks have aqua eyes, and solid Tonks have green to yellow/green eyes. Depth, clarity, and brilliance of eye color is preferred, and is best seen in natural light.
Each of the three patterns comes in four colors: natural, champagne, blue, and platinum. More contrast exists between points and body color for the champagne and platinum than for the natural and blue.
The colors can be confusing, because similar colors exist in the Siamese and Burmese breeds, but are called by other names. For example, a natural pointed Tonkinese is the same color and pattern as a seal point Siamese. A natural solid Tonkinese is the same color and pattern as a sable Burmese. Champagne point is the same color and pattern as a chocolate point Siamese, and platinum point is the same color and pattern as a lilac point Siamese.
Tonkinese colors beyond the four universally accepted colors do exist, but are not accepted by all cat associations. CCA, for example, accepts honey and fawn in addition to the traditional four, and TICA accepts seal, chocolate, cinnamon, red, blue, lilac, fawn, cream, and the tortoiseshell counterparts of these colors in patterns of pointed, mink, and solid.
In CFA, outcrossing Tonkinese with Siamese and Burmese hasn’t been allowed for many years, but in TICA Burmese, Siamese, and European Burmese are allowable outcrosses. ACFA and CCA also allow Burmese and Siamese outcrosses. Since the breed has achieved its unique head and body type, many breeders rarely outcross. However, some breeders are concerned about future genetic diversity and include judicious and carefully planned outcrosses in their breeding programs.
The Tonk, as it’s affectionately called, is a human-made hybrid deliberately created to combine the best qualities of both its parent breeds—the Burmese and the Siamese. However, it’s very likely that natural crosses between Burmese and Siamese have existed for hundreds of years, because these two ancient breeds came from the same general area. Both breeds were depicted in the ancient text The Cat-Book Poems, a manuscript written in the city of Ayutthaya, Siam (now Thailand), some time between 1350, when the city was founded, and 1767, when the city was burned down by Burmese invaders (people, not cats). The first American Burmese, Wong Mau, who became the foundation cat for the Burmese breed in North America, was later found to be a Siamese-Burmese hybrid. Some of the "chocolate Siamese" shown in the late 1800s in British cat shows were likely what we’d call Tonkinese today.
The Cat-Book Poems was written in the city of Ayutthaya in Siam sometime between 1350, when the city was founded, and 1767, when the city was burned by Burmese invaders (the people, not the cat breed). The illustrations in the manuscript clearly show cats with pale coats and dark points on the ears, tails, faces, and feet.
However, the planned parenthood of the Tonkinese didn’t begin until the mid-1960s. Wanting to produce a cat with a moderate body and head type, breeder Jane Barletta of New Jersey crossed a sable Burmese with a seal point Siamese. Around the same time, Canadian breeder Margaret Conroy bred her sable Burmese female to a seal point Siamese male because she couldn’t find an acceptable Burmese mate for her timid cat. The offspring of these crosses were lovely light brown cats with moderate body and head types, beautiful aqua eyes, and appealing personalities. Barletta and Conroy communicated about their special new cats and worked together to develop them into a bonafide breed. Barletta did much to recruit breeders and promote the breed in the United States. News about the breed’s beauty and engaging personality spread, thanks to the work of the early breeders, and efforts to achieve recognition began in both the United States and Canada. Tonks were first accepted by the Canadian association CCA under the name Tonkanese. In 1971, Tonk breeders voted to use the spelling Tonkinese.
Not everyone was as enthused as the Tonk fanciers. Most Siamese and Burmese breeders wanted nothing to do with these hybrids. Siamese and Burmese were both being selectively bred to achieve the refined forms we see today: sleek and svelte for the Siamese and compact and muscular for the Burmese. The Tonkinese, whose head was rounded, and whose body type falls midway between compact and svelte, wasn’t either breed’s ideal. Achieving a uniform head and body type was also challenging for Tonkinese breeders, because the two parent breeds were dissimilar and became even more so as time passed.
However, Tonk fanciers were determined that their sleek, personable felines would have a place in the cat fancy. After many years, they achieved the look they wanted and the recognition the Tonkinese deserved. In 1971, CCA became the first cat association to grant championship status to the breed. CFF recognized the Tonkinese in 1972, and TICA followed in 1979, the year that association was founded. CFA belatedly granted championship status in 1984. Today, all North American cat associations accept the breed.
The cat loving public had no prejudice against the Tonkinese and was just as enthusiastic as Tonk breeders. Tonkinese cats are particularly popular among cat lovers who do not favor the svelte type of the Extreme Siamese or the compact type and foreshortened muzzle of the Contemporary Burmese. The Tonk’s head and body type are similar to the Thai or Old Style Siamese, because the cats used to create the breed were less extreme in type than today’s show Siamese and Burmese. Some Tonkinese breeders also breed Thai. Because Tonks are popular, many breeders maintain waiting lists. (The Tonkinese is the 18th most popular breed of the 41 breeds recognized for championship, according to CFA’s 2014 registration totals.) Fanciers say the terrific personality, moderate body style, and attractive color combinations are well worth the wait.